Ralph Storer believes more Scottish hillwalkers should try showshoes on for size.
When the skies are clear and the tops are cloaked in white, winter is a wonderful time of year to be on the Scottish mountains, but trudging through snow that is more than a few inches deep can be slow and tiring. The solution? Snowshoes.
The last few decades have witnessed a revolution in snowshoe design, with the centuries-old wooden â€œraquetteâ€ snowshoe being superseded by plastic and metal models. Their frames are stronger and more durable than wood, give increased safety and reliability in the field and facilitate a number of technological improvements. In the US this has resulted in a winter hiking boom.
Perhaps it is time those of us on this side of the Pond began to consider the joys of the snowshoe shuffle.
The primary purpose of a snowshoe is to increase flotation on snow by spreading the snowshoerâ€™s weight over a larger area. The weight-bearing area can be enlarged in two ways: by making the snowshoe wider or by making it longer. In practice the ideal is somewhere in between, because length decreases manoeuvrability and width interferes with walking gait. The best compromise is a teardrop or tapering rectangle shape that is wider at the front than the rear.
The snowshoe frame is manufactured from plastic or lightweight metal, with different sizes catering for different weights. Inside the frame is the snowshoe deck, made from plastic or a synthetic material such as vinyl. Unlike traditional wooden snowshoes, the modern version is not completely flat â€“ its toe is turned up. When walking this makes it easier to lift the front clear of the depression it makes in the snow.
Perhaps the most surprising design feature to those new to snowshoeing is the toe hole in the front of the deck. On a cross-country ski the boot is attached at the toe and the foot pivots at the toe. On a snowshoe the boot is attached to a binding hinge that pivots under the ball of the foot. When the heel is raised this causes the toe of the boot to pivot downwards through the toe hole, giving positive lift-off.
On the underside of the hinge, beneath the toe of the boot, is a claw-like traction device that pivots with the boot and bites into the snow like a crampon. Some snowshoes have an additional claw under the heel, and more rigid ones may have a jagged traction rail down each side.
Walking boots are attached to the hinge either by a fixed binding (like downhill skis) or flexible straps (like snowboards). Optional extras include add-on flotation tails and a heel bar. In the raised position the heel bar lifts the heel of the boot to a higher position for easier progress up long, steep slopes (this is of dubious usefulness on variable Scottish mountainsides).
There are three types. The cheapest models are made as a one-piece from moulded plastic. They are good entry-level shoes but have the least flotation capacity and are the most likely to break under stress. On the plus side, they can take a rigid ski-type binding to give good lateral support, useful when traversing. The second type has a tubular lightweight metal frame, a fabric deck and flexible bindings. They are lightweight and give excellent flotation and feel on the snow. On the down side, the flexible bindings allow a degree of foot rotation and there is no lateral support. The third type has a more rectangular frame with a vertical metal edge all the way round, giving great traction and good flotation. A disadvantage is that they are heavy and expensive and some models, like crampons, can cause snow to ball up underneath.
To see whatâ€™s available, check out North American websites such as Rei and Mec, both of which feature dozens of models for all kinds of terrain. See which models and features appeal then see whatâ€™s available here. A good UK site is First Ascent.
All other things being equal, the more you and your rucksack weigh, the larger the snowshoe you need. Good manufacturers have weight charts to simplify the decision but the trend is to use the smallest snowshoe you can get away with. Smaller snowshoes weigh less, are more manoeuvrable and are less tiring to use. Women especially should make sure to buy a womenâ€™s model as these are manufactured to cater for a different skeletal structure, foot-width and stride pattern.
In Scotland snow conditions favour smaller models because Scottish snow is usually harder and wetter than European and American powder snow and requires less flotation. Also, as it may be necessary to carry snowshoes up to the snowline, weight is important. The price you will pay for using a smaller model is that in soft snow you will sink a bit (but not much) further. I am 6ft 4ins in height, weigh about 180lbs and am more than happy with a pair of 8 x 25ins tubulars (the smallest in the manufacturerâ€™s range), which Iâ€™ve used for a number of years.
Using snowshoes on flat or rolling terrain is irresistibly simple â€“ you just strap them on and go, using ski poles or trekking poles as aids to balance. Unless the rear of the boot is fixed to the snowshoe by a downhill ski binding, the back of the snowshoe drags along the snow when the heel is raised to take a step. Known as tracking, this action is akin to that of cross-country skiing and gives the pleasant sensation of shuffling along on top of the snow. Tubular snowshoes are ideal for this as the rounded frame causes less drag.
On steeper slopes it is necessary to take bigger strides as each step will compress downwards when it takes your weight. On very steep ground it is possible to kick steps by flicking the back of the snowshoe up and kicking the front end horizontally into the snow. On descent the toe claw prevents sliding. Claws and side rails really come into their own on hardpack or icy ground, but be careful not to lured on to terrain where it would be safer to use ice axe and crampons.
As with skiing, snowshoeing can be tiring until you acquire good technique, but you should soon be floating effortlessly over the white stuff. You can become so attached to your snowshoes that you forget the things you canâ€™t do while wearing them. Trying to walk backwards, turn without lifting your feet or walk up and down steps, for instance, can cause great amusement.
You donâ€™t have to wait for sea-level snow to get out there and have some fun. You can try snowshoeing at any of the Scottish ski centres, although it is safer to stay off-piste to avoid skiers and snowboarders. You could even progress to a hill top or easy Munro. Snowshoe-able Munros include Beinn Dubhchraig, Meall Ghaordaidh, Mount Keen, Aonach Mor in the Nevis Range (perhaps using the gondola to gain height) and a whole clutch of possibilities on both sides of the A9 at Drumochter Pass. Snowshoes turn hills that would be a plod in summer into such exhilarating days out that you may well find yourself returning from a dayâ€™s tracking in the mountains giving thanks to Ull, the Norse god of snowshoes.
Lightweight snowshoes, like these award-winners from Fimbulvetr, are a great entry-level option.
This article fist appeared in issue 29 of Scotland Outdoors magazine. Buy it here.